Tag Archives: Luke Keuchly

What to Watch For, Preseason Week 3 Patriots vs Panthers

Steve Balestrieri
August 22, 2019 at 7:30 am ET

The Patriots are taking on the Carolina Panthers tonight in Foxboro for the third preseason game for both teams. This is the week that the starters traditionally see a lot of game action. But I have always disliked the term “dress rehearsal”, so for the eighth year in a row here at PatsFans.com, I’ll use my favorite quote from Willie Nelson. My wife and I spent time back and onstage with Willie at one venue and partied on his bus with him at others. [Those are stories for a different time.] But Willie’s words ring true.

“There are no dress rehearsals, we are professionals and this IS the big time”

So, both teams’ starters should see about a half of work and maybe a series in the second half to get acclimated to the entire process. This will be Cam Newton’s first game action this year after off-season shoulder surgery. So, he may not be as apt as he’s shown in the past about tucking the ball away and running with it. This will also be Tom Brady’s first preseason action this summer.

So, what are we looking for from a Patriots perspective tonight? 

Can Brady and the New Faces Click on Offense?

Julian Edelman came off of NFI on Monday, Demaryius Thomas was removed from PUP on Tuesday. I don’t imagine either will play. Josh Gordon is still on NFI and has already been ruled out of tonight’s game. N’Keal Harry just returned to practice this week and may not play either. 

So, this will be a really big test for Jakobi Meyers, going against the top Carolina defense as Brady’s go-to receiver. Phillip Dorsett and Braxton Berrios should also get a lot of snaps with the first unit. 

This should be a good time to see how Sony Michel and Damien Harris are used out of the backfield in the passing game, something they’ve worked on this summer. We know James White’s value there, but the coaches made a concerted effort to by more unpredictable this summer. Michel and Harris should handle the bulk of the work in the running game. Isaiah Wynn’s workload should increase this week and we want to see how he handles this as well as how he holds up against a stout Panthers defense.

Matt LaCosse is back on the field after being injured in Detroit, and this is his opportunity to shine. No one has really stepped up at tight end this summer, so this a big chance to carve out a role with the team. 

How Well the Front Seven [Starters] can Create Pressure:

We’ve seen the top guys dominate in workouts and joint practices. The second and third-tier guys have looked really good in preseason games, but now the starters get to show their stuff. And they get a good test against a Panthers team that has given them problems in the past.

With players like Micheal Bennett, Dont’a Hightower, and Kyle Van Noy getting into their first game action of the year, mixing in Jamie Collins, Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, and John Simon, we’ll get a better idea on how they are planning on using these players. In particular, will the coaches continue to be aggressive and we’ll be wanting to see the personnel groupings that they will rollout.

This front seven looks deep and versatile, with guys like Chase Winovich, Shalique Calhoun, and Derek Rivers coming on later to spell the starters, the 2019 front seven is as deep a unit the Patriots have had since the 2003-2004 teams.

Watching the Starting Secondary Gel On the Field:

This secondary unit of the Patriots is one of the more stronger ones in the league and arguably the deepest secondary unit that Bill Belichick has coached since he took over the reins of the Patriots in 2000.

Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Jason McCourty give the team their top three boundary corners. Jonathan Jones has easily bested former 2nd round pick Duke Dawson for the top slot corner. Now watching the starters and their communication with Devin McCourty and Pat Chung at safety is a step. This unit hasn’t played together in a game since the Super Bowl. This is a big week of preparation for the season. Many of them probably won’t play next week. 

Dawson should see plenty of reps in the second half as he’s one of the guys who is fighting for a roster spot. Joejuan Williams, the rookie 2nd round CB, who has improved markedly since training camp began and Keion Crossen should also see a lot of work in the second half.

Special Teams Get Ready For Week 1:

With the release of Ryan Allen, Jake Bailey has won the starting punting position. But the pressure doesn’t let up now, it just gets even tougher. He’s replacing a very popular player with the fanbase and this will be his first game action in Foxboro. He’ll also be tasked with holding on field goal and extra-point attempts. It will be important for him to get off to a good, clean start.

Stephen Gostkowski has missed field goals in each of the first two games, whether that was all on him or something in the exchange between Joe Cardona and his new holder Bailey will bear watching. For all of the fans who would like to see the third most accurate kicker in NFL history replaced, who is out there and most importantly available? Other than the Ravens’ Justin Tucker, Gostkowski is right up there with the best kickers in the game. With a better career accuracy average than the guy he replaced 14 years ago.

The kick return game will bear particular watching tonight. Braxton Berrios or Gunner Olszewski’s roster spot may depend on how well they produce in the kick return game. 

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Patriots – Panthers Preseason Week 3, What to Watch For

Steve Balestrieri
August 23, 2018 at 7:30 am ET

The Patriots and Panthers meet in the preseason Week 3 matchup and a very important one in more than one aspect this week. This is the final tuneup for the starting units for both teams, what has normally been deemed a dress rehearsal for the regular season. The starters will mostly sit next week as the players on the bubble will get one more chance to show what they have before the final cut downs to the 53-man roster begin.

Last season, Cam Newton and the Panthers shredded the Patriots in Foxboro and Newton afterward didn’t even consider New England a playoff team, calling their game against the Eagles, “the first playoff team we’ve faced.” If this were a regular season game, that would get a bit of play with Bill Belichick and the coaches but this won’t be the case. However, he’ll be sure to remind them of what the Panthers did to them that day.

So, from a Patriots perspective, here are the things to watch for this week as the Pats try to prepare themselves for the regular season.

Newton Presents First Test Against a Mobile QB: The Patriots are going to face a mobile quarterback for the first time this summer and will be facing one against DeShaun Watson and the Texans to start the season. With no joint practices, the Patriots defense has had to face only Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer, for the most part, this summer, other than their two preseason tilts, neither against a mobile QB.

In the game last year, won by Carolina on an FG by Graham Gano as time ran out, Newton sliced and diced the Patriots defense, going 22-29 for 316 yards with three TDs and one Interception. He also ran eight times for 44 yards and a touchdown. The designed runs and QB draws the Panthers ran last year will be a big focus of the defense this week. The Pats were sliced and diced on those last year, as well as the defensive backfield breakdowns where Carolina hit big play after big play.

Newton should play well into the second half of this one and this will be a big test for the young defenders and prepare them for Watson, although he may not taking off and running as much, at least early in the season after tearing his ACL last season.

With this first matchup in mind…

Carolina TEs, RBs Against the NE LBs in Space: This is a very big test for the linebackers this week who looked suspect against the Redskins but much better against the Eagles a week ago. With Newton’s legs, he will stress the second level of the defense as he is a threat to take off and run at any time. But he also has great targets in the passing game at the tight end position with Greg Olsen and RB Christian McCaffrey.

Both are a tough assignment in any scenario, McCaffrey caught 80 passes out of the backfield in 2017 and Olsen who missed nine games due to injury in 2017 is a huge target for Newton and will be looking to set the tone for the season with a strong game this week.

The Panthers looked to upgrade their backfield this spring and brought in former Broncos RB C.J. Anderson who is a dual threat to run or catch a pass out of the backfield. He had 28 catches a year ago.

This week’s test will be a big barometer for the Pats LBs, considered a weak spot a year ago. Dont’a Hightower should see the field extensively in the first half, but we also expect to see what rookie LB Ja’Whaun Bentley can do against this talented group. Kyle Van Noy and Marquis Flowers should also see plenty of snaps against Newton.

Time For Decker, and Dorsett to Show Up: Time is running short for Eric Decker and Phillip Dorsett if they want to make the 53-man roster. Kenny Britt had a very impressive spring until, in the last minicamp drill, hurt his hamstring. It was deemed at the time minor. He’s been invisible ever since and hasn’t practiced all summer. He was released on Wednesday.  

Decker was signed after Jordan Matthews hurt his hamstring and was released. To say that he hasn’t stood out is an understatement. He’s yet to catch a pass in two preseason games and has shown a tendency for drops, both in practice and in the game. Both of these players could use at least a couple of receptions to show up on the scoresheet to give the coaches some confidence heading into September.  

Decker was signed to a very team-friendly contract and his only guaranteed cash was his $75,000 signing bonus. There is no dead money involved with him. He can be cut loose with no salary cap hit if the coaches decide to release him.

The other missing WR has been Phillip Dorsett. He was regularly one of the best receivers on the field during the early days of training camp. He’s cooled way off since then and you never hear his name called. He’s been virtually invisible in the preseason as well.

Carolina’s defense looks to be very solid in the front seven but there are questions for the unit in the secondary. They’ll be looking to solidify things back there while the Patriots and Brady are looking to find out who’s going to be ready to go Week 1.

These two guys have to build some chemistry with QB Tom Brady heading into the regular season. Neither of them are filling anyone with confidence that they’re ready to do so, once the games are for real. Friday night is a big game for both and the clock is ticking.

Patriots Running Game vs Panthers Defense: The New England running game has looked good thus far this preseason with Jeremy Hill and James White leading the way. Rookie Ralph Webb, and veterans Mike Gillislee and Brandon Bolden have also been productive in spurts thus far this summer.

However, Sony Michel, the Pats first-round draft pick has been absent since August 1 when he left practice early after injuring his knee. Later, it was reported that he had fluid drained from it and he’d be out “about 10 days”. We really don’t expect to see Michel until the regular season. Rex Burkhead has been out with what has been termed a slight tear in his knee. He returned to practice Sunday and has been limited in practice since then. It seems doubtful that he’ll play on Friday.

Missing two of their key pieces at the running back position really limits the offense, because we’ve yet to see what they can do with all of their weapons present. The Panthers run defense was stout last year allowing only about 80 yards per game which was 11th best in the NFL last year.

I’d look for Hill and White to get the majority of the early work with Gillislee and Webb, both fighting for roster spots to go all out when they’re in the game. Carolina’s front seven, led by Luke Kuechly is very stout and will be a good barometer for the ground game this week. They were mostly solid last week but did give up a few big runs.

Young Players Get a Big Game to Step Up: The bottom end of the 53-man roster is still wide open for the Patriots and there are still plenty of roster spots that are far from settled. For some of the younger players, playing the Panthers in a dress rehearsal is a huge opportunity to show what they can do.

On offense, the aforementioned Webb at running back is a long-shot to make the roster. However, if Michel or Burkhead isn’t ready to start the season, that may open the door a crack for him to work his way into a roster spot  Wide receivers Braxton Berrios and Riley McCarron are definitely on the bubble right now. Neither has shown much in the passing game while both have punt return capabilities, they haven’t stood out as a positive there either. Berrios has been banged up and is now back at practice and this will be a big game for both to showcase their talents.

On defense, Bentley has already solidified a roster spot. Now he’s playing to earn reps with the starting unit. But some other young players have plenty to play for. Keionta Davis, the productive edge rusher from Chattanooga who missed all of his rookie season with a bulging disc in his neck, has shown up and fighting for a roster spot. He’s still on the outside looking in, but he and Vincent Valentine are looking to turn some heads.  

In the secondary, Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Duke Dawson, by virtue of his draft status are locked for the roster. Veterans Jonathan Jones, and Cyrus Jones have just returned to practice after off-season surgeries cut their 2017 short. They’re fighting it out with newcomer Jason McCourty and rookies J.C. Jackson, Keion Crossen as well as Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz and Ryan Lewis. Those eight are probably fighting it out for three slots. It will be intriguing to watch.

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Five Patriots Players to Watch Against the Panthers

Steve Balestrieri
September 30, 2017 at 8:24 am ET

The Patriots take on the Carolina Panthers tomorrow afternoon at 1 p.m. and look to begin the season at 3-1 before jetting down to Tampa Bay for a Thursday Night Tilt.

These teams don’t meet very often, this will be just the seventh time they’ve played including Super Bowl XXXVIII but it should still be a competitive, hard-fought affair.

So, from a Patriots perspective, here are five players to watch tomorrow and ones who will need to play well if they look to come away with a victory.

Quarterback Tom Brady: It is always funny in a sardonic way that so many of these “hot-takes” artists in the national media jump all over the “could Brady be done?” mantra every time he has a not-so Tom Brady type of game. After struggling against the Kansas City Chiefs on opening night, we heard it again. In the past two games, Brady has thrown for 825 yards, eight touchdowns, and zero interceptions.The cliff talk has been stifled for now.

But the Patriots face another very good defense in Carolina which stuffed their first two opponents before suffering a letdown of their own last week. They’ll be looking to get back on track and the pressure will be on Brady to produce, even more so, especially with the defense struggling as badly as it has done.

Linebacker Dont’a Hightower: There seems to be every indication that the Patriots best linebacker will be back on the field after missing the last two games with a knee sprain. It couldn’t have come at a better time. The defense has been struggling and could use his hard nose back in the lineup.

While he’s not a panacea to fix everything in the defense that has been scuffling along, it will be interesting to see where the Patriots play him. This season they had him more on the edge against KC before he got hurt. One must wonder if they’d be thinking on moving him back inside and moving Kyle Van Noy outside where he is more comfortable and better suited.

With Carolina center Ryan Kalil out, Hightower could help the defense stop the running game inside and possibly bring some pressure up the A-gap. We’ll be watching closely to see how the big man is moving after that knee injury as well.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski: Gronkowski, like Brady, heard the same not-so-quiet whispering that maybe he had lost a step after a tough loss against KC. In the past two games, he’s been immense in both the passing and running games as his blocking is as good as ever. He’ll be one of the focal points of the Panthers defense.

He’ll be facing off against one of the best linebackers in the NFL in Luke Kuechly. He can cover all over the field and the matchup between these two should be a fun one to watch all afternoon as two of the best will go against one another.

When Gronkowski is on top of his game, the Patriots offense clicks as he opens up so many other avenues for Brady to utilize. He’s a true force multiplier. That’s why the Panthers will be trying to stop him and take away the middle of the field.

Defensive End Trey Flowers: One of the issues of the Patriots defense has been the pass rush, it has been inconsistent and the team could certainly use a more potent one moving forward. Flowers has been good so far this season, and the team is hoping that they can get even more from him as the season progresses.

He’ll be going against Matt Kalil the left tackle who has struggled thus far after coming over from the Vikings with a big $55 million dollar contract. Kalil has allowed 4 sacks, 11 QB pressures, and a QB hit. While experts expect that Kalil will get it all figured out in Carolina, the Patriots hope that it just isn’t this week.

Flowers could really help a unit that is struggling right now with a big day against a tackle who likewise is struggling. This is a good matchup to monitor during the game as the Patriots edge players will try to get pressure while remaining disciplined against the mobile Newton.

Wide Receiver Danny Amendola: While an argument can be made for watching the big corners of the Panthers James Bradberry and Kevon Seymour (making his first start) going against Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan on the outside, a more compelling matchup may be Amendola going against veteran Captain Munnerlyn in the slot.

Amendola returned from a concussion last week and played well, returning two punts for big gains and making three catches for 48 yards, including a huge 27-yard grab between two defenders on the Patriots final drive when facing a third and eighteen near midfield. That set up the game-winning pass to Cooks to win the game.

Munnerlyn in a surprising twist played sparingly (11 snaps) last week against the Saints. I’d expect the Panthers to play him much more this week matching the two veterans against one another. Neither one is the biggest guy on the field but their matchup will be a big one to watch as the Patriots may lean on Amendola this week a bit more in an attempt to keep the chains moving.  

Check with us here on PatsFans.com immediately after the game for instant analysis and the stats that covered this contest.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots – Panthers Key Matchups, Who Has the Razor’s Edge?

Steve Balestrieri
September 29, 2017 at 10:17 am ET

The New England Patriots will meet the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. Kickoff is scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m.

This week’s game will be televised by WFXT Channel 25. Joe Buck will handle play-by-play duties with Troy Aikman as the color analyst. Erin Andrews will work from the sidelines. The game will also be aired on the Patriots flagship radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub with Bob Socci and Scott Zolak on the call, produced by Marc Capello.

The Patriots (2-1) came back from a late 4th quarter deficit with Tom Brady leading the Patriots to a touchdown drive with 23 seconds to go on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks for a 36-33 win.

The Panthers (2-1) dropped a 34-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Cam Newton struggled, throwing for just 167 yards with three interceptions.

We here at PatsFans.com are continuing our “Razor’s Edge” column in 2016 to give some quick analysis on some of the key matchups of the game and what you can look for in how the game plays out.

Series History:

The Patriots and Panthers will be meeting for just the 7th time with just the third game coming in Foxboro. The teams are evenly split 3-3 all-time and 1-1 in Foxboro. The last time the teams met was in 2013, with the Panthers taking home a come-from-behind 24-20 win. The ending was a controversial one, where Tom Brady drove the Patriots down the field in the final seconds and Rob Gronkowski was interfered with in the end zone. The officials threw a flag on the play and then picked it up saying the pass was uncatchable preserving a Carolina win.

Here is a look at some of the key matchups and who holds the Razor’s Edge.

First up is the Patriots offense:

Patriots RBs vs Panthers Front Seven – Razor’s Edge Carolina

The Patriots running game has yet to get untracked this season and while the Patriots running backs have come under a bit of criticism, the running lanes haven’t been there created by the offensive line. The backs are constantly getting hit in the backfield and the Patriots OL needs to do better.

Carolina has a very good front seven and in their first two games completely stuffed the running game of the 49ers (51 yards), and the Bills (69 yards), 55 of which were Tyrod Taylor scrambling out of the pocket. LeSean McCoy was held to just 9 yards on 12 carries as they completely took away the Bills running game.

Last week they had an anomaly all around as the Saints gashed them for 149 yards on the ground. But don’t look for another version of that. The front seven is very solid with a trio of linebackers (Luke Keuchly, Shaq Thompson, and Thomas Davis) that fly all over the field and make plays. One key to watch on Sunday if Star Lotulelei is able to go this week. But for the Patriots, they’re going to have to pass to run, once again.

Patriots WRs vs Panthers Secondary – Razor’s Edge New England

The Patriots passing game has been clicking the past two weeks. Tom Brady has thrown for 855 yards and eight touchdowns in the past two games and despite a wide receiver corps that is banged up and missing some pieces has enough weapons that they can test anyone.

Tom Brady will look to Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski to continue their strong play again this week. The Panthers will be looking to stop those two first and take away their two biggest targets in the passing game. But Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Phillip Dorsett as well as James White and Dion Lewis out of the backfield gives him plenty of options.

Carolina has a good pass rush and it is led by Julius Peppers who has returned for a second tilt with the Panthers and is off to a very good start with 2.5 sacks already. They’ll chip and blanket Gronkowski underneath and try to throw off the timing of the short/intermediate routes and take away the middle of the field.

The key here is, as always… time. If the Panthers get to Brady before he can get thru his progressions, then they’ll be successful, if Brady gets the time to throw, then the Patriots will find room to work. Look for Amendola and Hogan to get a lot of looks in this one. Curious if the team decides to use more of Dorsett in this one.

Next up the Carolina offense:

Panthers RBs vs NE Front Seven – Razor’s Edge New England

Carolina’s running game, like New England, has yet to take off yet. They have the talented Jonathan Stewart and the impressive rookie Christian McCaffrey as well as the scrambling ability of Newton, although he hasn’t run much yet, probably because his shoulder isn’t 100 percent yet.

The Patriots run defense hasn’t been consistent at all yet this season. And was run on for 125 yards by the Texans with a suspect offensive line last week. It will be interesting if Dont’a Hightower returns from an injury this week, where he’ll play. It may be beneficial for the Patriots to put him back in the middle and allow Kyle Van Noy to move back outside where he was more comfortable.

The Patriots will try to slow the running game down enough and force the game into Newton’s hands. Carolina’s backs haven’t had a breakout game…yet and they may push guys into the box.

Panthers WRs vs NE Secondary- Razor’s Edge Carolina

Since Newton’s surgery on his shoulder this offseason, he hasn’t thrown the ball exceptionally well yet. He barely played in the preseason, and still, has quite a bit of rust still to work out. He’s missing his best, most reliable target in Greg Olsen who’ll be out until November. Kelvin Benjamin hurt his knee last week but is expected to start on Sunday. He and Devin Funchess give Newton bookend big receivers (6’4 and 6’5 respectively).

The Patriots pass defense is, to put it politically correct struggling right now. To put it another way, they’re close to being a sieve. The team is last in the league in yards allowed, last in points and last in pass yardage allowed. And they always struggle against mobile QBs. Throw in Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield and this is going to be a tough matchup again.

The Patriots always get passive defensively against mobile QBs, afraid of giving up the big run and play in a zone which doesn’t fit the strength of their defensive backs. I look for Carolina to split out McCaffrey wide and put him on the linebackers who have struggled to cover backs this year. I see McCaffrey having a big game on Sunday.

Special Teams- Razor’s Edge New England

The Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski was solid on Sunday including his kickoffs as he continues to pin teams deep. Ryan Allen is solid with excellent directional kicking and hang time. The Panthers counter with Graham Gano and Michael Palardy. McCaffrey hasn’t had a big game on STs yet and the Patriots coverage units are getting better every week. Carolina has solid coverage teams as well. But New England gets the slight nod here as they’re at home and Danny Amendola who had two big returns last week has reignited the return game a bit.

Next up, who wins and why…


This one has all the makings to be a barn-burner. Forget about the Panthers struggling passing game where Newton has had trouble hitting water out of a boat. He has right what the doctor ordered, a defense that is searching for answers and can’t stop anyone right now. And until they show signs of fixing their issues, they’re going to struggle.

The Patriots offense is the opposite side of the equation, they haven’t even hit their stride yet and have been averaging 33 points per game. I see Brady and Newton trading touchdown drives this week. McCaffrey will find the end zone twice but it won’t be enough as Brady will spread the ball around to his receivers to keep the Panthers pass rush at bay. Hold onto your seats again, this one goes right down to the wire.   Patriots 35-31

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots 2017 Opponents, 5 First Impressions of the Panthers

Steve Balestrieri
September 27, 2017 at 5:42 pm ET

Patriots Take on Panthers At Home This Time

The Patriots play in their third home game in Week 4 when they take on Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. As hard as it is to believe, the season will be a quarter of the way over by Sunday evening after the game. Time flies by when you’re having fun I guess.

The Panthers suffered their first loss of the season, a 34-13 crushing loss to the previously winless New Orleans Saints. The Panthers defense, as always, is very solid but the offense has been really struggling. And now already with All-Pro TE Greg Olsen, the Cats passing game may be minus the very talented Kelvin Benjamin for this one as he was injured during the Saints game and is questionable to play this week.

Carolina breezed thru 2015 with a 15-1 record and went to the Super Bowl. But last year they scuffled through a 6-10 season and went from first to worst. Now they’re trying to put the pieces back together and ride the surgically repaired shoulder of Newton back to the playoffs.

Here are our Five First Impressions of the Panthers::

Team Captains Meet With Richardson to Clear the Air re: “Protests” : With the flurry of protests around the NFL after the tweets by President Trump, the Panthers players were unsure of how to proceed. Their owner Jerry Richardson has been critical of the protests which he’s characterized as  “politicizing the game is damaging.” And he didn’t release that until Monday.

One of the Panthers’ players Captain Munnerlyn said in an interview with ESPN, “People was kind of scared to express that because of how it made it look to [Richardson]. We didn’t do much as a team. I think we wanted to do more, but we didn’t know how it would come down, this being North Carolina. … I think a lot of people were scared on our team.”

So on Tuesday, Richardson met with team captains, outside linebacker Thomas Davis, quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, center Ryan Kalil, safety Kurt Coleman and tight end Greg Olsen to clear the air.

The Panthers Are Hurting Like NE on the Injury Front: The Panthers will be missing one of their star players in tight end, Greg Olsen, this week. He broke his foot earlier this year and was placed on IR. He’s expected back sometime in November. But he is far from the only Panther banged up.

QB Cam Newton still isn’t 100 percent since having off-season shoulder surgery. He’s still getting his arm back to where it was and probably won’t be close to his normal self until midseason. WR Kelvin Benjamin injured his knee last week and left the game. If he can’t go on Sunday, it will be a big blow to the offense. He didn’t practice on Wednesday but was present and was riding a bike. Other players who missed practice Wednesday include  Julius Peppers, Ryan Kalil, Jeremy Cash, Thomas Davis, Daryl Worley and Star Lotulelei. Peppers and Davis were given a veterans day off for maintenance only and aren’t deemed to be injured.

Kalil is the starting center and has missed the last two games with a neck injury. His loss has been telling for the Panthers who have struggled offensively as the play of the line overall has suffered in his absence.

Defense is Solid and Goes Thru Kuechly: The Carolina Panthers defense hadn’t allowed a touchdown until last week’s game against the Saints. And the unit that has brought back Julius Peppers for a second stint in Carolina is solid across the board but the glue of the unit is LB Luke Kuechly. Patriots coach Bill Belichick raved about Kuechly during his conference call with the Panthers media on Wednesday.

“He does everything well,” Belichick said. “Very instinctive. Knows where a lot of plays are going either before they get there or very quickly after the ball’s snapped. He’s fast. He’s got good range. Gets sideline-to-sideline. Makes a lot of plays in pursuit. Tackles well. Instinctive in pass coverage. Has a lot of interceptions. He has more interceptions and tackles than anybody.”

“He’s productive against the run. He’s productive against the pass. He’s a good blitzer,” Belichick continued. “He’s a hard guy to block. He doesn’t stay blocked even when he does get blocked. He’s got a great motor, plays really hard. Plays with great effort.

“Gosh, he should be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year every year. The kind of production he’s had over the last few years is really second to none.”

Which Cam Newton Do We See Sunday?: Carolina quarterback Cam Newton as we said above is still struggling to return to form since his shoulder surgery during the offseason. The Patriots remember his game against them in 2013 when he was giving them fits in a 24-20 loss in Charlotte. Bill Belichick certainly does. The coach was lavishing praise on Cam as well. He was asked about the similarities between Newton and DeShaun Watson who the Patriots faced this week.

“Well, I think both guys probably have a few plays that are designed runs, and then there are other plays that are improvised runs,” Belichick said. “I think when you’re talking about mobile quarterbacks, guys that are tough to handle, tackle, can throw, run, make good decisions – I mean, I would put Newton at the top of the list.”

“Not saying that there aren’t a lot of other good players that do that, but I would say, of all the guys we play or have played recently in the last couple of years, I would definitely put him – he’s the hardest guy to deal with. He makes good decisions, he can run, he’s strong, he’s hard to tackle. He can do a lot of different things, beat you in a lot of different ways. We saw that in the game down there in ’13, so I would put him at the top of the list. Not saying the other guys aren’t a problem because they are, but he’s public enemy No. 1.”

With the team’s struggles with mobile QBs well known, they have their work cut out for themselves this week. The Patriots are essentially a man-cover team but with mobile QBs, the coaches play more zone in case they take off and run. How they choose to defend Newton this week is up in the air.


Christian McCaffrey May Get His Chance to Shine This Week: In the never-ending game within a game of chess matches, each week in the NFL is a humdinger this week. With the injuries along their offense, the Panthers have been relying more and more on rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. He’s got 25 carries, 18 catches out of the backfield and 9 returns on Special Teams. So what will one of the Panthers’ plans be this week? Isolate McCaffrey on one of the Patriots linebackers.

McCaffrey is very versatile, he can line as a feature back and share carries with Stewart, be used as a third down back out of the backfield or split wide, like the Patriots use James White and Dion Lewis. Belichick said today,”We have to be aware of where he is and what the possibilities are from those spots.”

McCaffrey hasn’t scored a touchdown this season and Carolina would like nothing more than for him to break out against New England whose struggles against running backs rivals that with mobile QBs. It will be interesting to see who they put on McCaffrey this week. Kyle Van Noy may be the logical choice …if Dont’a Hightower returns this week. Otherwise, he’s already got a lot on his plate. I doubt it would be Elandon Roberts. It may be a safety, Pat Chung or Jordan Richards.

Check back with us later in the week as we’ll break down the key matchups for the game right here on PatsFans.com.

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